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When the Balmoral and Regent hotels opened in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in 1912 and 1913, they offered luxe accommodations to business grandees and tourists.

The Chicago-style glory of the edifices, which slouch directly across East Hastings Street from one another, has since faded into advanced dilapidation. Until they were closed by the city because of unsafe and unsanitary conditions, the hotels catered to low-income people who lived in one-room apartments and shared a bathroom.

And now Vancouver is expropriating the two derelict buildings.

Expropriation is a blunt instrument. But, in this case, the City of Vancouver’s unusual use of that power – to punish bad landlords – is entirely justified.

A recent Globe and Mail investigation revealed the hotels’ current owners, the B.C.-based Sahota family, have been cited many hundreds of times for health and safety violations. The owners ignored multiple repair orders, as well as municipal offers to purchase the buildings. Hence the forced sale.

Reclaiming the Regent and the Balmoral won’t solve Vancouver’s well-documented housing crunch on its own. But the expropriations send a bracing message – one that ought to reach other Canadian city councils grappling with similar housing issues.

Montreal, for example, has a growing problem with vacant and unsafe buildings, many of them the property of absentee or negligent owners who seem beyond the reach of bylaw enforcement.

One recently mooted solution was to give Montreal the authority to seize long-abandoned and unoccupied buildings without financial compensation for the owners.

That’s an extreme measure. But the fact it is being discussed illustrates the pressure civic leaders are under to do something about the absence of low-cost housing in big Canadian cities.

Mitigating its effects requires addressing the supply side, which Vancouver is doing by building new social housing for hundreds of low-income people who depend on lodgings like the Balmoral and Regent hotels.

That’s one part of the answer. Dropping the hammer on scofflaw building owners is another.

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